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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: In Historys Grip

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Follow more than 50 years of turmoil in the Middle East as the journalists of Reuters explore the roots of the Intifada, and the failure of diplomacy.
This chapter is from the book

A Brief History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

"Abraham accepted Ephron's terms; he weighed out to him the silver that Ephron had stipulated in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver at the current market value."

Genesis 23:16

Few places are as redolent with history as the city of Hebron in the West Bank, and there are fewer still where past and present collide quite so violently today.

The burial place of the biblical patriarch Abraham, the common forefather of Jews and Muslims, the ancient city is a crucible of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a place in which age-old hatreds stoked by religious fervor, politics, prejudice and myth have exploded into horrendous carnage twice in the past troubled century.

It is just a short walk from the home of David Wilder to the home of Abu Samir al-Sharabati in the Israeli-occupied heart of Hebron, a maze of seething animosities where violence between Arab and Jew fills the air. But distance in Hebron is not measured in yards. It is measured in time and it stretches for millennia.

Wilder is an American-born spokesman for the few hundred ultranationalist religious Jewish settlers who live under heavy Israeli army guard in the center of the city, home to some 120,000 Palestinians. His neighbor Sharabati, a Palestinian Muslim merchant, lives with his extended family in an old stone house just beyond the razor wire behind the Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Father) settlement.

Wilder will tell you how the 400 shekels of silver that the Book of Genesis records Abraham as having paid for a family burial plot some 4,000 years ago documents the first real estate transaction by the nomadic Hebrew tribes in the land God promised to Abraham's descendants. That, he says, makes Hebron Jewish soil, the cradle of the Land of Israel.

Sharabati will trace his roots back even farther, citing as his forebears the pagan Canaanites who sold Abraham the very same land. And that, he says, means an uninterrupted Arab presence and makes Wilder and his fellow settlers interlopers.

"There's no love lost between this community and the family there," Wilder told me when I asked him about the Sharabati family during a visit to Hebron late in 2001. "If that property was under Israeli control, it would of course be preferable to the way it is today."

It was not always like that in Hebron, where tradition says Abraham, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob lie buried with their wives Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, in the subterranean Cave of Machpelah.

To Jews who trace their lineage to Abraham through his second son Isaac, the fortresslike building with its part-Herodian walls built above the cave is a synagogue, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. To Muslims who trace their lineage to Abraham through his first son Ishmael, it is the Ibrahimi Mosque.

For centuries both communities lived in relative peace. At times the city's Sephardic or Oriental Jews even found common cause with its majority Arabs against harsh Byzantine Christian rulers and invading Crusaders who transformed the shrine into the Church of St. Abraham.

Then, on August 23 and 24, 1929, with riots spreading through British Mandate Palestine over the Zionist-led immigration of increasing numbers of Jews from Europe, an Arab mob armed with clubs, knives and axes ran amok in the city, butchering 67 Jewish men, women and children.

Dozens, even hundreds of Jews were saved by many of their Arab neighbors. When the killing finally ended, the surviving Jews were resettled in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter, only to be pushed onto the move again in 1948 when that part of the city fell to the Jordanians. Some Jewish families tried to move back to Hebron but were removed by the British authorities in 1936.

"The attack on the Jews of Hebron was born of fear and hatred," the Israeli historian, Tom Segev, writes in his study of the British Mandate, One Palestine, Complete. "The Muslims believed the Jews intended to violate the sanctity of Islam, and that the Zionists wanted to dispossess them of their country."

If that was the case in 1929, 12 years after the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour cast the favor of His Majesty's government on "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," it has been all the more so since 1967.

The Jews that have come to Hebron and the imposing hills around it since the Israeli conquest of the West Bank in the 1967 war are among the most extremist settlers in the land. They are armed, anti-Arab and determined, at times in defiance of the Israeli authorities, to extend a Jewish presence on land they consider theirs by divine birthright.

On February 25, 1994, one of their number, Brooklyn-born physician Baruch Goldstein, entered the Ibrahimi Mosque in army uniform with a Galil automatic rifle. Acting under the seeming delusion that he was saving the Jews from another slaughter, he shot dead 29 Palestinian worshippers kneeling in prayer. He was bludgeoned to death by survivors.

Israel handed 80 percent of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule in 1997, making it the only city in the West Bank to remain under partial Israeli military occupation in the wake of the Oslo interim peace deals. The settlers intend to keep it that way.

"The creator of the world didn't bring us back here to throw us out again," Wilder said.

This is the lesson of the Holocaust, this and only this: That the existence of the Jewish people is tied to Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish army that rests on the strength of Jewish faith.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
Auschwitz-Birkenau, April 23, 1998

For several years now, thousands of Israeli high school students have set out for Poland on a unique rite of passage to confront at first hand the horrors of the Holocaust at the sites of the Nazi death camps.

In 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to lead a "March of the Living" on the two-mile trail of tears from Auschwitz to the gas chambers of Birkenau.

With the eyes of the world upon him, Netanyahu used the occasion to repeat what has become one of the defining tenets of Israel's identity: that a strong Jewish state with a powerful army is the best safeguard against another Shoah.

That view is a cornerstone of Israel's justification of its right to exist. Yet such was not always the place of the Holocaust in the Israeli psyche.

The Holocaust gave a terrible impetus to the founding of Israel as a haven for a scattered people prey to centuries of persecution and dispersion.

According to Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, more than 47,000 survivors had immigrated to Palestine by 1947, accelerating the influx of Jews that the British Mandate authorities had restricted for so long.

Thousands more followed, with many taking up arms in the war which erupted when the armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq invaded Israel the day after it proclaimed its existence on May 14, 1948, in the dying hours of the British Mandate.

Yet the reception the survivors received on disembarking from the creaking vessels that disgorged them onto the sands was not always compassionate.

On occasion it was one of scorn from fellow Jews who were engaged in what they saw as their own struggle for survival and devoted to the creation of a new chapter in Jewish history—one in which Jews would not be cast as eternal victims.

Figure 5

Some in the early years called the newcomers sabon—"soap" in Hebrew. It is still slang for "meek" in Israel and a horrific allusion to accounts that the Nazis made soap from the remains of Jews they gassed and burned in Hitler's "Final Solution."

The Holocaust sat uneasily with the pioneering leaders of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, and the young men of the Haganah militia who battled Arab nationalists. For them, with the exception of the rebels of the ghettos and the partisans in the forests, Europe's Jews had gone to their deaths like lambs led to the slaughter.

Zionist logic dictated that the restored Jewish state envisaged by the nineteenth-century founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, would be a vast "in-gathering of the exiles" who consciously turned their backs on the anti-Semitic oppression and assimilation of the diaspora, not a final refuge born of horror and necessity.

David Ben-Gurion, the Polish-born founder of Israel and its first prime minister, authorized an underground agency to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine, but he also feared that the genocide of Europe's Jews would bring ruin on his Zionist-Socialist design.

"The extermination of European Jewry is a catastrophe for Zionism," Ben-Gurion declared in December 1942. "There won't be anyone to build the country with."

Israeli attitudes toward the Holocaust began to change with the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the "Final Solution." It began in Jerusalem in April 1961 and, for the first time, many Israelis heard witness accounts from victims, some of whom until then had kept the horrors buried deep within themselves.

It was a seminal moment, a national catharsis that confronted Israel's Jews, including Sephardim with no direct experience of the Holocaust, with a trauma that became part of the collective consciousness.

Eichmann, who had been snatched from sanctuary in Argentina and spirited to Israel by agents of the Mossad secret service in a secret operation that became the stuff of legend, was sentenced to death and hanged at the gallows on May 31, 1962.

Menachem Begin, Ben-Gurion's arch political foe from the right-wing Revisionist camp, never shared an ounce of his rival's ambivalence about the Holocaust. From his days when the British put a bounty on his head and branded him a terrorist until his term as Israel's first right-wing prime minister from 1977 to 1983 it haunted his every move.

The first survivor of the Holocaust to lead Israel—his parents perished in Brest-Litovsk—Begin had come to Palestine with the Polish Free Army in 1942. He took command of the hard-line Irgun Zvai Leumi Jewish underground in its fight against British rule, breaking with the mainstream Zionist policy of restraint after the scale of the Holocaust became evident.

Operations he ordered included the bombing of the British military command at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946, killing 91 people, and a stunning armed assault in May 1947 on the British-run Ottoman fortress in the Arab town of Acre that sprang imprisoned underground fighters from inside its walls.

As leader of the right-wing opposition Herut party, Begin led vehement protests in the early 1950s against negotiations on reparations with West Germany, declaring in one speech that "every German is a Nazi, every German is a murderer."

Then, driven by the conviction that every Arab threat to Israel held the potential for another genocide, Begin used the Holocaust to justify his policies in government.

"A million and a half children were poisoned by Zyklon gas during the Holocaust. Now Israel's children were about to be poisoned by radioactivity," Begin wrote to U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in a letter defending Israel's bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor. After the massacre of several hundred Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut by Christian Lebanese militias allied to Israel in 1982, Begin said: "Goyim (Gentiles) are killing goyim and the world blames the Jews."

By the late 1970s, according to one study, the Holocaust had come to shape the mindset of all of Israel's Jewish citizens, regardless of their background and culture. It shapes it to this day.

"We have had our Holocaust and we will not repeat it," Gilead Sher, the head of Labor Party Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office, told me early on in the Palestinian uprising, or second Intifada, which broke out in September 2000.

We sit sometimes and cry over the tile.

Zuhdia Radwan,
a refugee from the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin

All that Zuhdia Radwan and her husband Mohammad have to remind them of the stone house where they lived as newlyweds is a single decorated floor tile.

They were elderly when we met in their two rented rooms in East Jerusalem's Old City, across town from Deir Yassin, the village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem where they grew up, married and then, as their world fell apart, were turned into refugees.

Half a century on, the core of the old village is now an Israeli mental health center set behind walls as forbidding as the obstacles to a resolution of the fate of the Radwans and millions of other Palestinian refugees.

Shortly before dawn on April 9, 1948, five weeks before the declaration of the State of Israel, Jewish fighters from the Irgun and Lehi underground movements entered Deir Yassin with the reluctant consent of the Haganah.

In the hours of fighting, scores of Palestinian men, including noncombatants, women and children fell to the Jewish fighters in the heat of battle or in cold blood. Accounts at the time spoke of some 250 Palestinian dead, though some Israeli and Palestinian academics now believe that number was greatly inflated.

Deir Yassin remains a pivotal tragedy in what Palestinians call "al Nakba"—the Catastrophe that was the exodus of more than 720,000 Palestinians from cities, towns and villages between November 1947 and September 1949.

Did they flee, panicked by Palestinian nationalists into evacuating their homes or deluded by invading Arab armies into thinking that their absence would last only as long as the imagined "war of annihilation," as official Israel maintains? Or did Jewish militias and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) terrorize them into flight under a policy to rid the land of its Arab population and make room for more immigrants to the new Israel, as the Palestinians insist?

The reality, like so many aspects of a conflict that feeds off myth almost as much as it rests on historical fact, probably lies somewhere between the two.

"I believe that the Israelis, the Jewish forces, were not motivated in killing Palestinians per se," Sharif Kana'ana, a professor of anthropology at the Palestinian University of Bir Zeit in the West Bank, told me. "I don't think they really had anything against the Palestinians except that they existed. They wanted them out."

Fighting between Jews and Arabs intensified from November 1947 after Arab rejection of a United Nations plan to partition Palestine into two states with the end of the British Mandate, and the flight of Palestinians continued until the end of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948–49.

As Israel now reassesses its early years, a group of self-styled "new historians" has arisen to challenge some of the sacred cows of traditional history, including the view that the Palestinian exodus was largely voluntary.

One of those historians, Benny Morris, argues that most refugees fled their homes in the confusion of war, but that their departure also suited Israel and that in numerous cases Jewish and IDF forces intentionally emptied Palestinian villages.

"The memory or vicarious memory of 1948 and the subsequent decades of humiliation and deprivation in the refugee camps would ultimately turn generations of Palestinians into potential or active terrorists and the 'Palestinian problem' into one of the world's most intractable," Morris writes in his study of the issue, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949."

Today, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there are nearly four million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and in teeming, unsanitary camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, upon which the passage of time has bestowed an air of underprivileged permanence.

The fate of these families, central to any settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poses as daunting a problem today as it did in 1948, when Israel swiftly vowed that it would never allow refugees the "right of return" as expressed in a United Nations General Assembly resolution.

For Israel, the prospect of millions of Palestinians flooding back to cities and towns such as Haifa and Ramle or to villages that now have Hebrew names and Jewish residents is a demographic time bomb that would cancel out its Jewish majority and its reason to exist.

For the Palestinians, a "just solution" to the plight of the refugees is a bedrock principle of their struggle for a righting of perceived wrongs and an issue from which Yasser Arafat derives a strong dose of his legitimacy as the leader of all the Palestinian people.

United States negotiators believed they had devised a way around the problem at talks on a permanent peace settlement at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland in July 2000. They were wrong.

Israel, according to published accounts of the outline deal, would grant a limited number of Palestinians a right to return to homes within its borders under "family unification" programs. The remainder would have the option to move to the proposed new state of Palestine, resettle elsewhere or receive compensation for losses to property from an international fund.

Israel balked at the wording and Arafat rejected it, unwilling or unable because of Palestinian and other Arab pressures to compromise on a principle he has termed as "sacred" as the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem.

I took an apple and bit it in front of my men. I told them I had fasted on Yom Kippur since I was 10 years old but now they had to eat and get ready to fight.

Avigdor Kahalani,
commander of an Israeli tank battalion on the Golan Heights in the 1973 war

It took Israel just six days in 1967 to redraw the map of the Middle East, as much time as the Book of Genesis says it took God to create the world.

Within an hour of the start of the Six-Day War on June 5, 1967, a Monday, Israel had wiped out three-quarters of the Egyptian air force, most of it on the ground.

By the end of the Jewish Sabbath, the territory under Israeli control had tripled in size. Israel gained strategic depth against hostile Arab neighbors with the capture of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and had won the greatest prize of all, East Jerusalem.

After 2,000 years all of Jerusalem was again under Jewish rule. In a heady atmosphere of triumph, secular and religious Jews flocked to the Old City to pray at Judaism's hallowed shrine, the Western Wall, for the first time since East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank fell under Jordanian sway in 1948.

Bitter dispute persists over the origins of the conflict, Israel's third in a generation, and whether any of the politicians, Arab or Israeli, had wanted it at all.

But there is little doubt that the Six-Day War had an impact that reverberates to this day through the Middle East and has helped define attitudes to the quest for peace.

Pan-Arab nationalism and the belief of Arab leaders that they alone could speak on behalf of stateless Palestinians withered with the humiliating defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, as did the contention that Israel could be pushed into the sea and wiped from the map.

In Israel, the victory brought a new confidence to the country and gave succor to nationalist and religious movements that swiftly embarked on a settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, soil they saw as vital to the security of the state, theirs by biblical heritage, or both.

It immediately posed dilemmas as well—how to handle a potentially hostile population of one million Palestinians, overwhelmingly Muslims, and whether a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic should hold onto occupied lands.

Six years later, the deceptive sense of invincibility the victory had bestowed also almost cost Israel its existence.

Avigdor Kahalani was a young lieutenant-general in command of Israel's 77th Armored Battalion at Emek Habakha (The Valley of Tears) on the Golan Heights on October 6, 1973, when he saw a combat aircraft fly overhead.

Kahalani's first question to himself, he recalled more than a quarter century later, was what an Israeli warplane was doing training on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Then, much like Israel itself, which had seen the signs of a build-up of Arab forces and misread them until it was almost too late, he realized the plane was Syrian and that his country was under attack.

"We knew the facts but we didn't act like we were in danger," Kahalani, whose desperate stand at Emek Habakha helped turn the tide of the war, told me. "We felt like little David against Goliath."

The combined armies of Egypt and Syria caught Israel off guard on Yom Kippur in 1973, storming across the Suez Canal and thrusting deep onto the Golan Heights. Over 18 destructive days, the tank and artillery duels fought on the grass-covered slopes of the Golan and in the sands of the Sinai shook Israel out of its complacency, revived Arab dignity and were to sow the first seeds for peace between Arab and Jew.

"We finished the war 35 kilometers from Damascus and 101 kilometers from Cairo, we had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, but they had restored their pride," Kahalani recalled.

Before the turn of the decade, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had done the unthinkable for an Arab leader. He journeyed to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset and then sat down with Prime Minister Begin at Camp David to talk peace.

On March 26, 1979, watched by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the two men signed a peace treaty at the White House, the first between an Arab country and the Jewish state. It would lead Israel in 1980 to begin a complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula under a "land for peace" formula that remains the bedrock of the unfinished business of an end to conflict in the Middle East.

Their deeds won Sadat and Begin the Nobel Peace Prize, but the treaty would also cost Sadat his life. He was gunned down at a military parade on the eighth anniversary of the 1973 war by Islamic militants opposed to his landmark peacemaking.

By 1982 Israel was back at war, its forces deep inside Lebanon in an invasion masterminded by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to push the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) away from the country's borders and expel its leader, Yasser Arafat, from Beirut.

Before, some of them came here. We ate food together, drank coffee, talked about the situation. I started to give them some trust. I was wrong about that.

Jamal Haddad, a middle-class Palestinian,
Ramallah, November 2000,
following the collapse of the Oslo peace process with Israel

Imagine it is late August 1993 and you are an average Israeli or Palestinian.

Each night for as long as you can remember you have gone to sleep having heard, if you are an Israeli, that Yasser Arafat and his PLO are a bunch of terrorists who are out to destroy your country.

If you are a Palestinian, you have heard that the Israeli soldiers occupying your towns and cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are the face of a nation that has usurped your right to historic Palestine.

Then one morning you wake up and hear that Israel and the PLO, through eight months and 14 rounds of clandestine negotiations in faraway Norway, have struck a deal to end decades of mutual hostility, recognize each other and implement a self-rule accord for Palestinians that is designed to lead to a permanent peace settlement.

The Oslo interim peace deal was signed on the White House South Lawn on September 13, 1993, in the smiling presence of President Bill Clinton and sealed with a previously unimaginable handshake between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"The children of Abraham, the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, have embarked together on a bold journey," Clinton told a ceremony that seemed to crackle with all the hope and optimism of an end to a century of conflict between Arab and Jew. "Together, today, with all our hearts and all our souls, we bid them Shalom, Salaam, Peace."

Arafat and Rabin both needed Oslo—the former to restore his stature after siding disastrously with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, the latter to obtain an end to a Palestinian uprising that broke out in 1987. It had brought Israel face-to-face with the dilemma of occupation, and the military force used to fight it was tearing at the country's soul.

Yet the accord struck two unprepared peoples like a thunderbolt. It unleashed fierce internal opposition to leaders branded traitors by critics opposed to the historic compromises it entailed, and it created in those who lived its realities a grindingly depressing sense that the accord was fatally flawed.

What Oslo did not do was create trust, the essential ingredient of the step-by-step approach on which the process was based. It was meant to instill the confidence needed by the two parties to resolve the most difficult problems of their conflict: the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Instead, with each side accusing the other of reneging on commitments, Oslo engendered suspicion.

Palestinians ended their uprising and in return got a measure of control over their own lives as Israel slowly handed over towns, cities and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to varying degrees of self-rule.

Arafat, from a lifetime in exile, returned in triumph to lead a Palestinian Authority with the symbolic trappings of a government but none of the powers of the independent state he and his people had believed would follow.

No Palestinian could enter or leave the West Bank and Gaza without passing through one or more Israeli checkpoints. As deadlines slipped and slipped for the implementation of Israeli land transfers, and as Jewish settlements expanded, Palestinians began asking themselves whether they had been hoodwinked.

Israelis were asking themselves the same question. For those who supported the deal, the trade-off was essentially one of giving up occupied land in return for an end to Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets at home and abroad and, ultimately, peace with and acceptance by the wider Arab world. They got neither.

Oslo paved the way for a full peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, Israel's second with an Arab state, but not with Syria or Lebanon, still technically at war with the Jewish state.

Instead of security, Israelis got suicide bombings and shootings from the Muslim militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian opposition movements that rejected Israel's existence and whose activities Arafat was either unable or unwilling to control. In short, Israelis did not trust Arafat.

Rabin, like Sadat, paid for his peace deal with his life. As he left a peace rally in Tel Aviv on the night of November 4, 1995, he was shot dead by Yigal Amir, a young Jewish extremist opposed to his concessions to the Palestinians.

In May the following year, disillusioned and traumatized by a succession of suicide attacks, Israelis rejected Rabin's interim successor Shimon Peres, a champion of Oslo, and narrowly elected right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu, one of its most vociferous opponents.

By September 2000, more than a year after the Oslo process was meant to have ended in a final resolution of the conflict, the agreement was a dead letter.

Time 1

Time 2

Figure 01 Jewish refugees crowd aboard a ship approaching Haifa weeks before the declaration of the State of Israel. Many such vessels crowded with Holocaust survivors were turned away by British authorities.

Figure 02 An Israeli tank advances toward a Palestinian youth during clashes near the office of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 8, 2002.

Figure 03 An Israeli soldier talks to Palestinian children at the entrance to the Old City of the West Bank town of Hebron that was under curfew, February 20, 2002.

Figure 04 A masked Palestinian youth walks in front of burning tires during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, July 29, 2001.

Figure 05 Key Players in the Region.

Figure 06 Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (left), in a picture handed out by his office, meets with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in ArafatÕs Ramallah office, April 14, 2002.

Figure 07 Christian pilgrims reach their arms into a solitary beam of light passing through a window in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, April 29, 2000, on the Saturday of Lights during the ceremony of Holy Fire.

Figure 08 Pope John Paul II touches the ancient stones of the Western Wall as he prays, March 26, 2000.

Figure 09 An Israeli border police officer and a Palestinian scream at each other in the Old City of Jerusalem, October 13, 2000.

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